Politics

Ron Paul's Followers and the GOP: Where To From Here, and How?

The Republican Party doesn't want Ron Paul activists. But do they still need the GOP?

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Maine delegation walks out of Republican National Convention.

It has been a tempestuous month for supporters of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) in the Republican Party. In the lead-up to the Republican National Convention now unfolding in Tampa, deal after deal was made involving challenges to (or from) delegations sent from states dominated by Pau supporters. The Paul people lost most of those fights.

Many Paul delegates were raring for a floor fight as the convention was set to begin. They wanted some victories in their efforts to get represented at the convention. That's why they wanted the original Paul-dominated Maine delegation to be seated, not the last-minute substitute chosen by the Republican National Committee.

The Paul forces lost that one as well. According to Maine delegate Mike Wallace, a hoped-for floor vote to reinstate the delegation wasn't even allowed to be held, leading the original delegation to leave the floor in protest.

Several times on the convention floor Tuesday, Paulites united with Tea Party members and old-school conservatives to fight rule changes that were seen as inimical to the interest of all grassroots activists, no matter their particular stances. One controversial change out of the Rules Committee would bind state delegations to the results of straw polls or primaries, leaving no room for maneuvering at state conventions.

Independent of ideology, this would mean an end to any future upstart doing what Paul did this year: using the savvy and enthusiasm of his supporters to rack up more delegates at state conventions than they won in straw polls or primaries.

FreedomWorks, which works closely with Tea Party groups, was spreading the word about truculent Rules Committee members bounced in favor of Romney loyalists during the fight, and others reported points of order being ignored as challenges to the controversial rule changes were heard on the floor.

David Nalle, national chair of the Republican Liberty Caucus (RLC), says the reported exile of Ron Paul delegations to the cheap seats meant they couldn't make themselves heard across the crowded hall. The Virginia delegation insists it was deliberately delayed by a late and dilatory GOP bus so they couldn't vote on the rule committee changes.

Some media reported on a "compromise" on one hated aspect of the new delegate rule, which allowed candidates to handpick their own delegations. Many feared shis change would mean only insiders and donors and friends of the winner would ever get to the RNC. The Rule 16 that ended up passing still apparently gives candidates that power. It says, "No delegate or alternate delegate who is bound or allocated to a particular presidential candidate may be certified under Rule No. 20 if the presidential candidate to whom the delegate or alternate delegate is bound or allocated has, in consultation with the state party, disavowed the delegate or alternate delegate."

Another rule hated by Paulites and Tea Partyers alike — one that allows the RNC to change its rules by a two-thirds vote between conventions — also passed.

Although even non-Paul-controlled delegations such as Texas' were against the rule changes, they still lost. This show of power on the part of the RNC over the grassroots is leading some delegates to consider rebellion an appropriate option.

Morton Blackwell, the head of the conservative training group the Leadership institute, was Barry Goldwater's youngest delegate in 1964. He's been present at every rules committee meeting for the past 40 years, and he thinks the new rules are "the most awful I've ever seen come before any National Convention….a power grab by Washington, D.C. party insiders and consultants designed to silence the voice of state party activists and Republican grassroots."

While Paul voters feel uniquely screwed by the RNC this week, it is in fact a general assault on grassroots rebels of any sort. For that reason, the RLC's Nalle sees a silver lining in the cloud of gloom the establishment has placed over the grassroots: "It became unifying for Paulites and the Tea Party people," he says. "Even with the ideological disagreements, the grassroots groups all agree that local control is better. What happened Tuesday with the rules brought that to the forefront, which I think will be healthy for the future. Having had the Party leadership take its gloves off shows how big a problem there is in the GOP now."

Dennis Marburger, a Michigan delegate bound to Romney but favoring Paul, told me he's found that not only Ron Paul fans but all sorts of Republicans who respect fair play are angry at the Rules shenanigans. Romney is alienating more than just those already primed to dislike him.

Although not invited to speak — he wouldn't give Romney forces a chance to vet his remarks — Ron Paul briefly walked around the convention floor Tuesday, to shouts of "President Paul" (matched by countershouts of "Romney!"). In the end, Paul got around 190 delegates votes (if we presume Pennsylvania's five for "Paul Ryan" were actually meant for Ron Paul). Since Paul was not officially in nomination — a last-minute attempt to get Paul's name officially in nomination also failed — the secretary at the podium did not announce Paul delegate numbers even when state delegation leaders did, which didn't necessarily always happen. One person claiming to be a Nebraska delegate in a Daily Paul comment thread says his state's chair didn't announce two Paul votes from that state.

So that's the end of Ron Paul the candidate in the Republican Party.

But what of Ron Paul's supporters' role in the party?

Some think they are done with the GOP. Many in the Paul grassroots are still disgusted with the official campaign's refusal to fight to the death to ensure a Paul nomination. They're especially angry with Paul's political director Jesse Benton, who has made his disdain for some of them pretty clear as well. Benton advised Peter Schiff to not show up to the grassroots "P.A.U.L. festival" in Tampa pre-RNC and worked to completely separate the candidate from that event. Many Paul-friendly politicos are probably just as happy to see the likes of Adam Kokesh of Veterans Against the War separate from the Paul movement, and have little respect for agorist living and economic education or street activism as elements of political change anyway.

I met many of these more scruffy, bohemian Paul types, but even some of them are members of local GOP committees or planning on running for office. Those who aren't still intend to signwave, run impromptu boarding houses for other traveling Paul activists, and be beacons for libertarian messages in personal life and social networks so everyone surrounding them will understand there are choices in politics beyond Obama and Romney. While they might not be effective political operators of the sort Jesse Benton might respect, they are softening up the electorate, in often unmeasurable ways, to be receptive to liberty candidates.

Nalle of the RNC thinks that people who are likely to find this week so discouraging they give up on the GOP would likely have left the active liberty movement after this convention anyway. Their passions would be cooled, he says, simply because Paul didn't win and it wouldn't really matter how polite or solicitous the Romney forces tried to be. Others seem turned off because they think the establishment's refusal to allow Paul to officially be in nomination or have his votes counted was an act of pure malice, done merely for the sour pleasure of telling Paul activists to stuff it and making sure no word critical of empire was spoken from the sacred halls of the RNC.

But there's still another place for Paul voters to go: to Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, who is actively courting their vote. Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative now working for Johnson because of Stone's disgust with the party's growing social conservatism and fiscal profligacy, calls out Paul as lacking in principles for not endorsing Johnson. 

Paul does continue to refuse to endorse Romney. That epitomizes the game he's playing: keeping his (and by extension, his brand's) liberty bonafides while not needlessly antagonizing the Republican Party (unlike in 2008, when Paul first gave an all-third-party endorsement and then went for the right-populist Constitution Party's Chuck Baldwin). Paul did say back in 2010, when he was not running for the Republican nod and Gary Johnson was, that he couldn't imagine endorsing anyone else. But that was in the context of the Republican Party, and things have changed since then.

Despite the smackdowns this week in Tampa, Paul and his people have had extraordinary and surprising success in punching their weight, and above it, in the Republican Party. Wallace, the Maine delegate who survived the purge of the Paulites, told me Tuesday night, "The Republican Party is where I've chosen to make my voice and I'm still going to exercise it. I just know that there's a real lack of honesty in the Republican Party so I will be paying close attention to who is honest in the Party."

For many in the Paul grassroots, that doesn't necessarily even mean Paul's son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is still mistrusted by some of his father's fans. But liberty-minded politicos seem more inclined to keep fighting in the Republican Party than go home.

Nalle reports his Republican Liberty Caucus is booming, and Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, and Alaska's state GOPs are largely under Paulite control. As Tom Heitman, a delegate from North Carolina, told me at the afterparty following Paul's Sunday rally, he's not at all surprised by how the establishment treated Ron Paul people. But he's still thrilled at how strong the Paul delegations' showing is compared to 2008.

By Heitman's count, liberty-minded delegates have quadrupled since the last presidential election. If that same sort of growth continues over the next four years, they'll be a majority. Heitman is still dedicated to local activism — especially stopping local spending binges via ballot initiatives — no matter how annoying the national GOP behaves.

His advice to any discouraged liberty activist? The beauty of a representative republic, Heitman says, is the immense power an ideological minority can have simply by showing up: particularly to local, district, and state Party meetings. He's going to keep showing up to the places where the GOP makes its decisions, and he thinks the liberty minded should as well.